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Non-Review Review: Wine Country

Wine Country should be a slam dunk.

The appeal Wine Country lies in its central cast. Wine Country assembles an impressive selection of older female comedians and drops them into a fairly standard premise that should allow them room to bounce off one another and enjoy themselves. It is a tried and true comic formula, the unleashing of a set of comedic personas on a familiar plot, the sole purpose of that stock set-up being to avoid getting in the way of the chemistry and charm of the cast. Wine Country has quite the cast; Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell and Emily Spivey, along with supporting turns from Tina Fey and Cherry Jones. That should be enough to get any comedy half way home.

Toast of the town.

The actual plot of Wine Country is fairly simple as such things go, but this is a canny move. Wine Country is designed as a cast showcase, and so the plot’s primary function is to serve as justification for bringing (and keeping) these characters together so that the film can bounce from one scene to the next. Wine Country is the story of a group of friends who come together to celebrate a fiftieth birthday, traversing the eponymous region while each dealing with their own personal and professional crises. Character traits are arbitrary, and their arcs simplistic; in many cases, it seems like the characters were developed through nothing more than vague word association, a collection of generic adjectives (“busy”“immature”“obsessive”) thrown into a hat and selected at random.

While this does hold Wine Country back, it isn’t the biggest issue with the film. Quite simply, Wine Country is put together in a frustratingly clumsy and haphazard manner, looking a feeling like a cloying made-for-television movie that somehow stumbled upon a phenomenal cast. The film looks flat and over-lit, even allowing for the sunny Californian setting. Many of the jokes feel lazy and obvious, grabbing the lowest hanging fruit; perhaps appropriate given how much time the film spends in vineyards. The soundtrack is awful and on the nose, slowly and loudly suffocating any genuine emotion the film might attempt to evoke. There’s no doubt that the cast and crew making Wine Country had a great time making the film, but none of that carries over to the finished product.

‘Til the (fri)end of time.

There’s a lot of material to like in Wine Country, even if the film actively seems to work against its strongest elements. The cast is legitimately great, and there is a lot of fun to be had with their interactions both large and small. Wine Country marks the directorial debut of star Amy Poehler, and it feels like a large part of the appeal of the film was in recruiting a cast of women over the age of forty to hang out with one another and have fun together. There are certainly worse excuses to make a film, and the best sequences in Wine Country have a loose and improvisational feel to them, a sense that this tremendously charismatic cast have been given a few character traits and asked to simply bounce off one another.

In some respects, Wine Country feels like a home video from an extremely talented group of people. The film feels knowingly indulgent, as if the production of the film was little more than an excuse for the cast to spent time together while writing it off as a business expense. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. There have been many films like this before, and there will be many after. There are worse things in life than watching a talented cast who truly enjoy each other’s company getting to bounce off one another. Watching Wine Country, it often feels like that movie would be stronger if it understood that aspect of its appeal, if it were to pitch itself as an all-American version of something like The Trip.

The whole vine yards.

Unfortunately, Wine Country feels the need to justify bringing this cast together by running them through a standard plot. The beats are entirely predictable from the premise. One of the characters has recently been laid off, and is struggling with feelings of idleness and uselessness as a result. Another character is waiting for some serious test results from her doctor, avoiding the calls from the office. Another character is trying to balance her work commitments with her friendship. Another is dealing with a crummy marriage. Another is struggling to embrace maturity, trying to move past a mid-life crisis. Another is dealing with feelings of exclusion, and her own worries of having moved beyond the group. All of this is stock and routine stuff, and none of it is elevated.

Instead, it constantly drags the film down. Almost every time that Wine Country seems to get moving, with an extended scene of the large cast bouncing off one another, the script drags these routine character problems to the fore and forces the cast to go through the familiar motions of having to actually articulate fairly stock character beats in a clumsy and heavy-handed fashion that really distracts from the easy naturalism of the cast’s other interactions. The result is something that feels like it is constantly bouncing between the looser and more casual comedy of something like The Office and the forced feigned sincerity of a Hallmark Original movie.

A vacation party.

To be fair, there is some interesting material here. There’s a fascinating recurring theme in Wine Country around the peculiar dynamics of female friendship, and the expectations heaped upon depictions of female friendship in popular media. In particular, the core group repeatedly laughs off suggestions that their friendship is shallow or must inevitably be tested as part of this trip. Both the owner of their rented property and psychic hired to do a group reading warn the women that tensions will inevitably surface during this vacation, but the women laugh it off. There is a grim inevitability to the group’s slow and angry disintegration over Wine Country, even as the characters themselves laugh at the hackneyed cliché of female friendships collapsing under pressure.

There is an interesting and recurring edge to the group’s dynamics over the course of the film. Repeatedly, the central cast prove themselves to be extremely antagonistic towards outsiders. They cause a scene at a restaurant, but assure the waiter that it is okay because they “are giving [her] a huge tip.” They take wine tours, but repeatedly ignore and belittle the staff providing information. “Jeez, people like to talk about wine out here,” one sarcastically notes, suggesting that it might have been a better idea for the group to have organised their own wine tasting than to have taken part in local tourism. Late in the film, a visit to an art gallery turns into an excuse for the older women to lay into millennials. “My god, they were born with hurt feelings,” Abby remarks.

Wherever you find your (psy)chics.

All of these elements suggest a sharper and more abrasive style of comedy than the film would allow, and there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the most engaging schools of modern comedy has been the push to allow female characters to be just as unpleasant as selfish and self-centred as their male counterparts; look at shows like Fleabag or Russian Doll. The big issue with Wine Country is that the film is utterly unwilling to allow the characters that edge. Everything about the film is structured and presented as wholesome and endearing, to the point of cloying sentimentality. Wine County pitches itself as a sincere feel-good movie in a way that smothers a lot of the potential charm of the film in a treacly blandness.

This blandness is reflected in production as much as anything else. Wine Country is obviously set in California, and so must inevitably be bright and light. However, cinematographer Tom Magill gives the whole production a flat and washed out look. Despite the talent on display, Wine Country looks surprisingly cheap. Similarly, the score from Lisa Coleman is just awful, suffocating any humanity within the film. Bad scores tend to tell the audience what to feel, instead of guiding them to an emotional beat. In contrast, the score to Wine Country attempts to not only dictate the audience’s emotional response, but the intensity and duration of that response as well. It saps the film of any real power, which is a shame.

What a grape idea.

Wine Country is a missed opportunity, a home movie documenting a trip that was probably more fun than the video suggests.

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